Mohd Fauzi Abdullah (with pink tag) and other PAS leaders celebrating their narrow win
TALKING to reporters after PAS candidate Mohd Fauzi Abdullah was officially announced as the victor in the Manik Urai by-election, PAS treasurer and Kuala Krai Member of Parliament Dr Hatta Ramli quoted former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“As Mahathir said, ‘A win is still a win’,” Hatta quipped. “But now we will need to have a post-mortem, to find out why we didn’t do better.”
During the campaigning, it was believed that a PAS win in Manik Urai was inevitable, even though the margin of victory was an open question. However, that the Islamist party only scraped through with a mere 65-vote majority has been a crude jolt, especially since it had declared victory earlier in the evening. PAS had expected a majority in excess of 2,000 votes in what was considered its stronghold.
In the end, PAS only gained 5,348 votes. The Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate, Tuan Aziz Tuan Mat, garnered 5,283 votes. The federal ruling coalition took five out of the constituency’s nine polling districts, including the PAS stronghold of Manik Urai Lama.
Positive for BN
“This would be the first positive sign for the BN since March 2008, at least in Peninsular Malaysia,” political analyst Ong Kian Ming tells The Nut Graph.
The BN has lost all six by-elections in Peninsular Malaysia this year, including this one. Manik Urai is the closest it has come to an almost-win.
“It would be interpreted as the first step in which the BN is taking to regain the electoral ground,” Ong adds.
“Umno can claim a moral victory,” Monash University Malaysia political scientist Prof James Chin agrees, adding that the Manik Urai results proved that Umno was, once again, a formidable opponent.
The BN has already begun using the bragging rights it gained in the Manik Urai fight. Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, in his Twitter account, claimed: “BN posts gains in ALL young voter streams. Ergo shift in young voters to BN.”
If the under-40s of Manik Urai did indeed vote for the BN, Ong mulls, “it could be a sign that the BN is slowly regaining some of the youth support it lost in the 2008 general election.”
Good for PR
Ong has previously argued that a PAS setback could be good for the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition.
“It would be a stark reminder to PAS members that there is no escaping the reality that Umno is their main political adversary,” Ong had written.
Mohd Fauzi shaking hands with party supporters
The Manik Urai by-election campaign coalesced around three main issues: oil royalties that Putrajaya allegedly owes Kelantan; a bevy of outraged fishmongers; and the mysterious absence and subsequent appearance of PAS deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa.
The last of the three issues is of the most interest to wider Malaysia, as it really concerns the possibility of a unity government between PAS and Umno.
Nasharuddin has come to represent the faction within PAS that is open to having so-called “unity talks” with arch-rival Umno in the name of Malay-Muslim solidarity. This openness — and Nasharuddin himself — was denounced by PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat.
Nasharuddin was scarce during the campaigning, with most of the media noting his absence on nomination day. This, along with the absence of posters depicting PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang in the first days of the campaigning, fuelled speculation that there was a growing rift within the party.
“[PAS losing ground] would put a stop to the unity talks and would shake [the PR] out of its complacency,” Ong reiterates.
“More pressure will be put on Nasharuddin and Hadi, since some people would blame the unity talks for contributing to the reduced majority,” he adds.
Other analysts disagree. Bridget Welsh, a political scientist attached to Singapore Management University, has been following the Manik Urai race closely. She opines that PAS’s underperformance in the by-election would strengthen those in the Islamist party who would welcome cooperation with Umno.
“It is potentially very divisive. [PAS's setbacks] may be played up by the Terengganu [Umno-friendly] faction as proof that the party needs unity talks with Umno to retain the Malay vote,” Welsh tells The Nut Graph.
The Manik Urai campaign was carried largely on the charisma and leadership of Nik Aziz. The Kelantan menteri besar delivered speeches and visited voters practically every day. His iconic face was plastered on party banners and posters throughout the constituency.
“If there had been a landslide victory, that would have meant a lot of people support Tok Guru (Nik Aziz) and what he stands for, such as a stronger opposition and social justice,” Welsh explains.
Conversely, therefore, the votes against PAS in Manik Urai may be seen as a protest against the Kelantan menteri besar, the moderation he stands for, and his rejection of an alliance with Umno to maintain Malay supremacy.
Welsh also attributes the BN’s gains in Manik Urai to Umno rhetoric that played to Malay Malaysian insecurity. “There was a below-ground campaign that was meant to play the race card, and tell voters that there were things that threatened the position of the Malays,” she says.
For example, late on 13 July 2009, a day before polling, banners had appeared, chiding Nik Aziz for his role in leading PAS into an alliance with the DAP, a party that has been stridently opposed to an Islamic state in Malaysia. These presumably BN banners were the final salvo in a long campaign to question PAS’s Islamic credentials because of its ties with the PR.
A BN banner that reads: “Why should you love DAP? Is DAP more Islamic than Umno?”
Also a factor, according to Welsh, was the very fact that the Manik Urai by-election was deemed insignificant.
Chin agrees. “Manik Urai had no effect on national politics. At best, the by-election was a sideshow,” he says, adding that either outcome in the constituency would not have unravelled PAS’s control of the Kelantan government.
“Therefore, there was more space to take for themselves,” Welsh concludes. As the Manik Urai campaign progressed, reports surfaced about “gifts” delivered to families, and returnee voters receiving “transport allowance“.
Moreover, promises of development projects, such as Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin‘s pledge of a bridge between Manik Urai Lama and Manik Urai Baru, appeared to have worked. Both polling districts fell to the BN.
The bridge in question
Weaknesses in PR
In the end, all seem to agree that PAS’s performance in Manik Urai was indicative of weakness in the party — and in the PR coalition as a whole.
“I think as long as the rumours of unity talks do not die down and are not put down strongly by PAS, [especially] Hadi and Nasharuddin, it will remain a thorn in the side of the PR,” Ong says.
“The opposition is losing momentum,” agrees Welsh, who thinks that the opposition has ridden on its surprising gains in the last general election but has failed to redefine itself for a more significant role in Malaysian politics.
At the same time, she notes, “Umno has changed, to a certain degree,” especially with Datuk Seri Najib Razak as party president and the country’s prime minister.
Hence, the Manik Urai by-election is a wake-up call to the opposition. If it is to survive, it cannot rest on its winning streak since March 2008. It must transform itself. But what that transformation will be like remains to be seen.